Ghibli is important, and it’s not just for kids

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Studio Ghibli for many reasons. One is that I am gathering my creative thoughts to prepare for an animation I plan on doing myself and the second is due to the recently explosive political sphere. Rather than focusing on the explosive part, let’s focus on the Ghibli part, because it is the main reason for my wanting to write this blog post.

So a lot of people give Ghibli credit for the beauty of their astounding animation techniques, but you don’t really hear Ghibli being promoted for it’s political messages. It’s not uncommon in our world that people don’t immediately see connections between the words “animation” and “politics” because these films (unless the animation style is visibly less “innocent looking”) have a stereotype as being kids films. This issue has been raised by many people, but it’s recently dawned on me just how important Ghibli’s message is. Ghibli, at their core are not kids films. They’re films for people. Anyone. And that’s what they need to be seen for. Not that I completely disagree with their child audience. However the messages of Ghibli’s films are ones that are begging for an ignorant, powerful and adult population to start making changes in this world. The films in many ways are political statements that require someone with a more mature understanding of the “adult world” to listen, interpret and act. Having a young generation aware of these films is great because it means they are introduced to these positive messages from childhood. Despite this it’s a little long to wait until an entirely new generation matures and becomes the change.

The messages that these films bring are numerous, and I will hopefully touch upon more than one of them in this blog post. Let me first explain this phrase I keep using-  “these films”. I want to say right now, that everything that involves creative input is open to interpretation. Having said that, you should know this blog post is informed by texts that have been written for academic purposes or at least by people who are academically informed themselves.

I recently (and by that I mean half an hour ago) finished watching Nausicaa: of the Valley of the Wind. A beautiful, beautiful film in many ways. And experiencing this film was eyeopening. I have seen a lot of Ghibli films so naturally, after a while you start noticing patterns. I’m not going to name every one I’ve seen, but the main films that apply to this article are written below. I am also going to be mentioning spoilers for Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke and Tales from Earthsea.

So by definition, “these films” means the following:

(Synopsis and description in the link)

The first message, and in my opinion (the most important) is nature is life itself. If you don’t look after nature you destroy life. Maybe that’s a little too much of a romantic concept for some people, but from another perspective it’s a very simple, bold and urgent message that has more depth than simply “recycling, reducing and reusing!” albeit, this is important too. Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa and Howl’s Moving Castle are a few films from the list above that present nature as one half of a whole. There are always many, many worlds in Ghibli’s films; the human world is never canon, which is an important concept. The very notion that other worlds exist is a pathway to making us realize that human life is not the center of the universe. There are other spheres within and beyond what we know: whether they be spiritual, imaginary, nautical, animal, inter-galactic. They’re there, and they deserve respect as much as any other human being. Nature is almost always presented as one side of equilibrium. Humanity as the other. And to deny this interconnectedness is to lose touch with our responsibilities towards life. Ghibli’s love for people is no less than for nature, and its enchanting characters are a testament to that. But that’s just the thing: they’re three dimensional. Rarely do you find a character in Ghibli who is 100% evil and inexplicable.

 A lot of films tend to present evil as a personified enemy to be destroyed, whereas Ghibli’s antagonists are not truly bad characters. The evil that stimulates a negative change in the plot is something of an energy that possesses otherwise innocent, kind and compassionate beings whether they be human or not. Look at Nausicaa: of the Valley of the Wind for example. The Ohmus (which are large, beetle-like insects) are seen attacking civilization. Their lethal rage is characterized through the red color of their eyes.

However that’s not our first introduction to one. We first see an Ohmu as a harmless beautiful shell- a long gone, decaying vessel of the later seen, rage-infused insect. In their natural habitat they are peaceful, beautiful, elegant creatures that are also capable of restoring life. Their eye color is normally a cool shade of blue. Yet they become possessed by crimson fury when they see their kind being destroyed by the human race, or witness their natural habitat threatened by destruction. Through favoring this perspective on looking at why the characters act out of pain or fear, it immediately creates a three-dimesionality to the problem. What’s even more noteworthy is that there is always a cure, the latter being not to destroy the messenger but the message. Destruction, as demonstrated by the falling airships shot down from battle in Nausicaa, aggravates the insect world, increasing the problem ten-fold. In this film one girl is capable of stopping a stampede of Ohmus, curing their rage by sacrificing her life and saving one of their kind. Upon feeling this, a beautiful shot is shown of a sea of crimson rippling out into an ocean of blue. Evil is contagious, which is why it’s dangerous, but it’s also not the end of life. We’re taught not to run from it, but greet it with empathy and understanding.

This is what a possessed Ohmu looks like…scary right? 🙂

This perspective may seem unoriginal because it’s so obvious and yet it’s so rare (at least in my experience) to see a conflict resolved this way in a film. One need only think of the go-to solutions a large majority of films promote. (I also say majority because this is not just a western problem, it’s evident throughout the world). This is a message that is promoted not only to children but equally to adults. We’re essentially saying death, war and destruction are the answers to our problems without even realizing it. Even in relation to personal or trivial things (an argument for example), we are instilling the idea that defeat equals victory, rejecting all possibility to live harmoniously. On a political level, this message could not be more important. The very core of the stories on the headlines today is conflict, people acting better than one another and treating each other like the western world doesn’t even pride itself on having foundations of equality. What better message could you give to the population?

A similar situation is explored in the stunning Princess Mononoke. Ashitaka (our male lead character) is trying to prevent a very serious and damaging war from occurring between the forest spirits (a mystical world) and the humans (obviously the human world). He is, to put it plainly, on both sides. The main hero is not associated with the “goodies”, he is more of a personified no man’s land, which for me is part of where the filmic genius of Ghibli’s films lie. Similarly Howl in Howl’s Moving Castle is a character who hides from his responsibilities as a sorcerer in order to avoid being used as an ally in war. (Although it’s not very professional from a student’s perspective, I have forgotten my original source) Miyazaki was cited to have been influenced by his negative political attitudes towards America’s decision to go to war in Iraq, infusing Howl’s Moving Castle with its anti-war message. In Nausicaa, soldiers are paralleled with toys being manipulated by the governing power to wage war. If anything in Ghibli’s films comes close to true evil, it’s these faceless and clone-like silver bodies, distinguished by their metallic uniformity. Their weak nature renders them ripe victims for manipulation, teaching us that group mentality can be dangerous to spreading negative impulses.

Torumekia Soldiers from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Ghibli’s films possess a unique array of lead characters, ones that demonstrate a desire to create unity as described above. Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa as I have mentioned are both key examples. I’m sure there are more. This is the kind of quality that is obviously missing from many political leaders in general but let’s not get into that. But however noble and kind these protagonists may be, they are not flawless and they themselves fall victim to selfishness (Howl), killing (Nausicaa) and fear (Arren from Earthsea).

We’re likewise presented with counter parts to our protagonists: Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke and Lady Kushana in Nausicaa. These characters are fascinating in themselves because of their independence as well as our ability to both condemn and admire them, therefore they cannot really be called antagonists. One characteristic they share is their determination to protect and fight for their people. Another is how they are so determined, they are blinded by this that they forget to think compassionately and see what’s better in the long-term for everyone. They are not presented as weaklings, again- nor are they presented as bad people. In fact both of these women are admirable for their strength in so many ways. Lady Eboshi for example is known amongst her people for helping lepers. She saved men who were outcasts of their society and women who worked as prostitutes, giving them opportunities to live a better life as part of a community. Lady Kushana, for me is a little more complicated seeing as her character is explored in more depth in the manga of Nausicaa (which I have not read), however in the anime after being saved by Nausicaa (female protagonist), she prevents her men from shooting the latter in the film. An admiration for Nausicaa can even be suspected at one moment in the film.

There is one small side note I will add, us being in the heart of the feminist movement, and that is the balance of men and women in Ghibli’s films. On rare occasion (for me it was watching the Castle of Cagliostro which is an early Ghibli film) am I really aware of gender because the equality of men and women in these films should be an example to everyone working in either live action or animation. That’s all I will say.

One character who perhaps is more deserving of the title “antagonist” is Cobb in Tales From Earthsea. Spending his life seeking out every book on magic he can find after being previously sent to the face of death, he acts on fear and prepares to sacrifice the greater good of mankind (and of course the lead characters) in order to obtain immortality. In this sense the equilibrium of life and death is another balance to be preserved by the human race, just as nature and mankind. During his death scene, we see a youthful character reduced to a quivering ghost of an old man, capable of only single-syllable sentences. We as an audience are able to understand that he is so incredibly possessed by his desire and fear that he has essentially sacrificed his soul. He is no longer human. It’s important to notice this, and to notice the fact that he is not in control of himself and is no longer the man he perhaps once was. This character is killed – but it’s also noteworthy that the film is based on a book series by Ursula Le Guin, and consequently has pre-existing narrative to conform to. The fate of the witch of the waste in Howl’s Moving Castle is similar to Cobb’s. Upon arriving at the royal palace, the witch is cleansed of all spells cast on herself to preserve her youthful beauty, eventually reducing her to a small and helpless old woman consumed by greed. However unlike Cobb, she is kept alive by Sophie (our main heroine) in spite of having cast an aging spell on the former after becoming jealous of the attention she was attracting from a previous love interest- Howl.

The Witch of the Waste, Howl’s Moving Castle

Like anger, fear is a similar theme explored in Ghibli films. The fear of death is one that fascinates me the most. Recently for certain reasons, I’ve come to understand that we have a real problem with the way death is presented in films. And culture in general actually; it’s always a bad thing that’s often used as a shortcut to exert an emotional response. And don’t worry- I haven’t just campaigned against it for this entire essay and am now going to contradict myself. We should prevent from causing death: but not avoiding it. Okay so let me explain so that people don’t start thinking I’m campaigning for world destruction. It would help to be aware that Japan has it’s own indigenous religion of Shinto, which some have said (this book introduced me to the idea) inspires a lot of the themes of nature in Ghibli. Shinto involves the belief that spirits exist in our surroundings, such as forests, rivers, etc. And if you’ve ever been to Japan you’ve probably seen a Shinto shrine or two. Japan’s second popular religion is Buddhism. As you may already know, Buddhism teaches a lot about the circle of life, reincarnation and rebirth etc. Death is presented as a part of life that mustn’t be feared, because it is vital to life as well. For me this was one of the messages I drew from Tales from Earthsea. I’ve already mentioned Cobb and his fear of death, which is a demonstration of how fear can drive us to insanity and how damaging it can be to who we are truly. Fear is similarly explored in Nausicaa in one of the opening scenes…the scene that rendered me completely in love with the film. Upon first being introduced to a small, cute and fury creature (below), Nausicaa is warned that “even young, they’re savage”. Despite this she beckons the growling little squirrel/fox, whispering “You’re not scared”. After it bites her finger and calms down, she whispers again “See…you’re not scared. You were just frightened”. At this stage the little fox licks the bite marks on Nausicaa’s finger, repairing the damage it caused out of fear. A motif that is foreshadowed here and will later reappear in the movie on a larger scale. Whilst I don’t know Japanese very well, there is something that suggests to me in the original language there may be a difference between the English equivalent of “frightened” and “scared” in the context above. In using “scared” Nausicaa implies that the little fox (Teto) isn’t so intimidated that it can’t defend itself, however through later justifying that Teto is “frightened” she means he was simply acting out of defense and wasn’t truly intending to harm her. A lesson important to understand in any case: political or personal.

Teto the squirrel/fox

One moment that moved me to tears was the stampede of Ohmus in Nausicaa: of the Valley of the Wind. A wise woman amongst the crowd of people awaiting their death as the sea of possessed Ohmus draw closer, has a line of dialogue that summarizes my point very well. A little girl asks her if they will die and the wise woman (Obaba) replies “if that’s our fate, we must accept it”. As in Buddhism, death here is not something to be feared. Even if it is unfortunate, it is a fact of life and should not be something associated with negativity. It is also the death of Nausicaa’s father that inspires her strength to stop more killing and save her community as well as nature. The wise woman also remarks “there is no reason to live if our lives depend on a monster”. This can symbolize so so many things. She initially was referring to the highly destructive monster that Lady Kushana resurrected in a bid to fight off the Ohmu on a larger scale and protect humanity.

Let’ face it, humanity has always felt safer with it’s nuclear weapons and other military investments, however just as in Nausicaa it has so far caused more harm than good. In the film, this inadequately controlled killing machine also proves to be unreliable, the monster dying shortly after it’s revival, additionally our lack of control over these so-called “monsters” is also highlighted. Make of that what you will. Anyway I shall not ramble about Nausicaa too much which I feel I’ve done already.

I want to finally return to what I started with: nature. I won’t get into my personal beliefs, however Ghibli has nurtured them throughout my life so you can probably guess them. Nature in Ghibli is always the answer. Restoring the damage humanity has done to disrupt the equilibrium always triumphs over war or destruction as I’ve already explained. But it’s more than just preserving nature. It’s about taking the time to appreciate what it gives us in return: not only beauty but also forgiveness. It has this incredible ability to heal anything, and in Ghibli films such as in Laputa: Castle in the Sky, we see man-made steel objects overgrowing with moss and grass, being swallowed into nature’s embrace and buried forever into the history of the earth. There are moments as there are often in Japanese films exploring the Japanese concept of Ma, which is a fascinating idea that is explained further here if you’re interested. There are silence’s in the films, moments of contemplation that character’s take to feel the breeze kissing their cheeks or admire a sunrise. But there are also moments for us, the audience to appreciate them too in a long shot or even a close up of what’s happening around us when we’re too distracted by our personal problems. It’s a breath of fresh air from the film in itself and it’s these contemplative pauses, which I’m aware have been written about before, that really give the Ghibli films their life and invitation into complete immersion.

I’ve already written what feels like an essay but I wanted to make my point clear: don’t just take Ghibli films for face value. I have learnt an incredible amount about what it means to be a human being from Ghibli and I’m still learning, but these films have guided me through so much I feel their messages need to be delivered farther. They teach us about the beauty and power in all of us but also our vulnerability to fear and anger, and the monsters these mere emotions can turn us into causing not only pain to our community, but the balance of life. We have started wars over basic human emotions and damaged our planet almost to the point of no repair. But here’s where Ghibli is truly admirable: in their endings. For me it took a long time to hear the undertones of a voice saying~

“Please hear my message. Be the change that I have hoped for in my work…however hard the journey”

Whisper of the Heart by Yoshifumi Kondo
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